Summoning Flight: Navigating Black Mythology, Flight, and Acts of Refusal— Volume 2, Issue 1
“They say the people could fly. Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbing up on a gate. And they flew like Blackbirds over the fields.” — Virginia Hamilton
Our last call asked us to consider the ocean as an initiation into new ways that ‘helped our ancestors forge new rhythms and radical visions of existing not tied to land, place, people, customs, or religion, but rather reinvention’. Our desire for freedom, the fierce refusal to remain bound by the brutality of the hull and overtaken by the ocean has conjured a refusal in our spirit that carries us forward. As we continue our ‘search for freedom and the meaning of our existence beyond the confines of the predatory systems that brought us here’, we reckon with the prospect of a mode of transport which allows Black bodies to do more than simply rise above circumstance: Black flight.
Myth is what survives a people, as the people themselves survive. For Toni Morrison, a particular Black myth she’d heard as a child would serve as the basis for a novel she entitled, Song of Solomon. The myth details Black slaves that survived the Middle Passage and had been brought over to the United States with the ability to fly. Under certain conditions of hardship experienced on the plantation, these Africans would pick up the air with great wings and begin to soar up and onward to Africa. Much like what Morrison was told in childhood had also been preserved in the slave narratives she combed through that were conducted from 1936-1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project, which described this fascinating phenomena of flight when prompted by interviewers who’d ask survivors of Slavery if they had ever heard or seen certain slaves fly.
The great Black folkloric storyteller Virginia Hamilton utilized this very myth for one of her most popular children’s books entitled, The People Could Fly. This myth lives on in the very fabric of Black life from its persistence in Hoodoo/Conjure culture, to the rarely seen, but often heard about acts of levitation performed by Muhammad Ali, for eager Black children in the inner city neighborhoods he was known to make appearances in, which aided in his image as the trickster figure in real life. More than storytelling, beyond the notion of survival, Black flight (can) serves as both an act of refusal to shudder at the weight of the systems which oppress, and a returning to the root and truth of our existence. As history is circular, Black flight acts a way back--when forced to travel by means that compressed, suppressed--a reinvention, a breaking free of confines that sought to change our DNA.
This time the call asks for work describing the ways in which Black flight lives on in us--how it allows us to both root and return-- along with flight being seen as an act of Black refusal. What possibilities exist in the work we do that align with moments of flying, levitation, and/or being pulled away from the systemic and bodily violences of anti-black oppression within the U.S.? In what ways does the work cast off and ascend the terrors that have threatened our lives and livelihood?
Prompts to respond to:
In what ways does your Black art/work focus on transcendence?
What acts of flight does Black life entail in the present day?
How have Black folks/art utilized flight as an act of refusal?
What does Black flight mean to you? What does it mean to fly from the proverbial and/or the literal plantation?
If the people could fly...finish the sentence. What possibilities could/do exist? Imaginatively take us there.